Antony Penaud: The Observer, the anonymous Twitter account, and the unnamed official

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Subject: The Observer, the anonymous Twitter account, and the unnamed official
Date: Sun, 19 Jun 2016
From: Antony Penaud <>

Antony Penaud received his DPhil from the University of Oxford in 2000. He is French and lives in London. His articles on Russia and Ukraine can be found on

Following three days of violent clashes in Marseille (the first two days between locals, England “fans”, and the police, the third day with the additional presence of extremely violent Russian “fans” who had gone to Marseille to fight with England “fans”), British media such as the Guardian changed their angle of the story by removing the involvement of the locals and by putting all the blame on the Russian “fans”, even though their initial reports of the last day’s violence claimed that “hundreds of English fans were willing participants” (JRL2016-#107-30).

Some joked that eventually Putin would be accused of being behind it all: while the “Putin’s done it” stories have picked up again recently in Western media (only last week, following US media articles, a Guardian headline was “Russian government hackers steal DNC files on Donald Trump” (1) – US media have since backpedalled from their initial accusations), such an accusation seemed too grotesque (and without motive).

The headline of an article in yesterday’s Observer (the Observer is the Guardian’s sister paper, published on Sundays) was “Whitehall fears Russian football hooligans ‘had Kremlin links'”(2).

Below I review the arguments of that article.

1.”A senior Russian parliamentarian tweeted, “Well done lads, keep it up!””

But the tweet came from Igor Lebedev, a member of LDPR, a far right opposition party.

Readers should question the motives of the repeated attempts of the Guardian (and of other British outlets) to deceive their readers about Lebedev’s political affiliation. I know some people who read such articles, and understood that Lebedev was part of the government.

2. “Following the violence in Marseille, fake Twitter accounts were reportedly set up to spread the view that Russian fans had been provoked.”

The fake twitter claim referred to another Guardian article (3) in which it was said that several Russian news outlets quoted the twitter account of “Simon Rowntree”, somebody who claimed to be a football writer for @ForestEchoNews.

But the Simon Rowntree football account was not set up after the violence. It had existed for a long time, and many football writers had warned about this account in the past (4).

Besides, British media also fell for a Simon Rowntree story at the beginning of Euro 2016, when they claimed that the Manchester United and Spanish goalkeeper had been removed from the Spanish squad following a sexual assault (5).

So, the Observer was again lying to its readers: by claiming that the twitter account had been created after the violence and in order to spread the news about who was responsible for the violence, the objective was to make it look like there was some organised back up back home for the hooligans…

3. A leader of a Russian supporters’ group “was pictured alongside Putin at a football fan’s funeral in 2010”.

Presidents are pictured alongside many people…

Coulibaly, one of the Charlie Hebdo attackers, was received at the Elysee Palace (the residence of the French president) in 2009 by Sarkozy as part of a youth employment meeting (6). Maybe the Observer should write an article called “Charlie Hebdo attacker had links with the French presidency” too.

4. “Senior government officials fear the violence unleashed by Russian hooligans at Euro 2016 was sanctioned by the Kremlin and are investigating links with Vladimir Putin’s regime”.

First note the usual word “regime” instead of “government” for when the government is disliked.

But, more importantly, the evidence is empty. There is nothing, apart from an unnamed official’s supposed “fear”, i.e. phobia.

Such tactic is often used, and has been described at length by Nick Davies in his award winning book “Flat Earth News”- a book he wrote because he wanted to understand how the media had been so wrong about the Iraq war.

4a. Nick Davies

Davies, a veteran Guardian/Observer investigative journalist who had a central role in the search of the truth in the UK’s hacking scandal, described the Observer as follows: “this new newspaper which had thrived on scepticism was seduced into accepting unproven and extravagant claims”.

Two months after 9/11, “the Observer announced that the men responsible for this massacre were linked to the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein”.

Nick Davies also wrote that “it was one of a sequence of high-profile and sometimes aggressive stories which he [Rose, journalist at the Observer] wrote in the nineteen months between those infamous attacks and the subsequent invasion of Iraq”, and gave details of some of these made-up stories.

Unlike many journalists, Rose later “acknowledged that he had become part of ‘a calculated set-up, devised to foster the propaganda case for war'”. Rose admitted that the Iraqi connection story had been planted to him by a CIA official, and also by an operational officer from MI6.

Looking back, he wrote: “To any journalist being offered apparently sensational disclosures, especially from an anonymous intelligence source, I offer two words of advice: caveat emptor”.

4b. Glenn Greenwald

A year ago, Glenn Greenwald described the “unnamed official” tactic at length in an article (7). In this case the mouthpiece was the Sunday Times, and the target was Snowden. I reproduce some key quotes below:

“The whole article does literally nothing other than quote anonymous British officials.(…) It offers zero evidence or confirmation for any of its claims. The “journalists” who wrote it neither questioned any of the official assertions nor even quoted anyone who denies them. It’s pure stenography of the worst kind: some government officials whispered these inflammatory claims in our ears and told us to print them, but not reveal who they are, and we’re obeying. Breaking!

This is the very opposite of journalism. Ponder how dumb someone has to be at this point to read an anonymous government accusation, made with zero evidence, and accept it as true.

But it works. Other news agencies mindlessly repeated the Sunday Times claims far and wide. I watched last night as American and British journalists of all kinds reacted to the report on Twitter: by questioning none of it. They did the opposite: they immediately assumed it to be true, then spent hours engaged in somber, self-serious discussions with one another over what the geopolitical implications are, how the breach happened, what it means for Snowden, etc. This is the formula that shapes their brains: anonymous self-serving government assertions = Truth”

“In the early 1970s, Nixon officials such as John Ehrlichman and Henry Kissinger planted accusations in the U.S. media that Daniel Ellsberg had secretly given the Pentagon Papers and other key documents to the Soviet Union; everyone now knows this was a lie, but at the time, American journalists repeated it constantly, helping to smear Ellsberg.”

“Western journalists claim that the big lesson they learned from their key role in selling the Iraq War to the public is that it’s hideous, corrupt and often dangerous journalism to give anonymity to government officials to let them propagandize the public, then uncritically accept those anonymously voiced claims as Truth. But they’ve learned no such lesson. That tactic continues to be the staple of how major U.S. and British media outlets “report,” especially in the national security area. And journalists who read such reports continue to treat self-serving decrees by unnamed, unseen officials – laundered through their media – as gospel, no matter how dubious are the claims or factually false is the reporting.”

At the end of his article, Greenwald later added an update: “The Sunday Times has now quietly deleted one of the central, glaring lies in its story (..) they just removed it from their story without any indication or note to their readers that they’ve done so (though it remains in the print edition and thus requires a retraction)”.

An anonymous football twitter account, an unnamed official, an Observer’s article (based on a combination of lies and unchecked quotes from an unnamed official): what do they have in common and what can we learn from this?

Unless one wants to be deceived, sources that have a history of planting false stories should not be trusted .